Are you nervous about giving your kids unsupervised access to the Internet? No wonder; cyberspace can be a scary place to let your pre-teens explore. Who are they talking to online? Are they being cyber-bullied? What about child pornography? With so many portable devices — laptops, tablets, cell phones, gaming systems — connected to the Internet, it can be hard to supervise your pre-teens’ lives online.

Another question: Is the Internet safer than it used to be? The answer isn’t that it’s any safer, but that it’s become a bigger part of our culture and therefore we’re more comfortable with it. Noni Classen, Director of Education for the Canadian Centre for Child Protection says, “Children are online at a very young age. It’s how children are socializing. The Internet is incorporated into parents’ daily lives, therefore making it easily accessible for their children.”

The key to keeping your pre-teens safe online is communication and education.

When to start the conversation about the Internet

Start the conversation with your pre-teens early, and keep it going as they grow. Sergeant Julie Gagnon of the RCMP says a good way to approach the Internet conversation is to ask them what they know about it already. This way, you can find out how much they understand, go over “what if” scenarios and give them guidance and advice. Gagnon says it’s important to have access to your pre-teens’ user names and passwords. While your kids might consider this an invasion of privacy, it’s your responsibility as a parent to ensure they’re using the Internet in a way that doesn’t put them at risk.

How to keep your kids safe online

Find out what your children are using the Internet for. Canadian digital and media literacy advocates Media Smarts is keeping tabs. Their study, “Young Canadians in a Wired World – Phase II Student Survey,” shows that instant messaging ranks first, playing games ranks second and listening/downloading music ranks third. By knowing what your children are doing online you can set effective guidelines for their Internet usage.

Balance protection with empowerment, says Classen. Pre-teens need to learn how to use the Internet safely and you need to allow this learning to take place. Cyberspace is also largely where pre-teens socialize, so it’s very important to allow them to go there. Classen has some great tips for talking to your kids about using the Internet:

The three Cs of cyberspace safety: content, conduct, contact

Content: You can try to control the content your pre-teens access with restrictive computer software, but there’s no silver bullet that will screen out all inappropriate material. So the best thing to do is talk to your pre-teens about what they could come across online. It’s important to emphasize that they won’t get in trouble or lose Internet access if they tell you about inappropriate material.

Contact: One of the biggest fears parents have today is who their pre-teens are talking to on the Internet. A good rule to enforce is that your kids should only be talking to people online whom they know offline. You should also talk to your pre-teens about the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships, and about which kinds of comments and conversations are appropriate and which are not.

Conduct: Pre-teens need to understand that the Internet is a public place, not a place to post private information or pictures. If your son or daughter is looking for privacy while on the Internet, remind him or her that the Internet is not a private space. As well, discuss the permanence of the online environment with your kids. Everything that they say, post and search is recorded, whether they like or not.

Let your kids know that the door is always open to talk about what they find on the Internet. Make it clear to them that they will NOT lose their privileges if they come to you with concerns about something they find online. That way they will be comfortable coming to you and you can be reassured they are being safe online.